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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Plan To Turn Von Humboldt School Into Apartment Complex Geared Toward Teachers Draws Heated Reaction From Residents

"It should be housing for families who have been displaced from our neighborhoods," one resident said at a chaotic community meeting Monday evening.

(from left) Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) and local teacher William Smiljanić Pérez at a community meeting.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
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HUMBOLDT PARK — Nearly 200 Humboldt Park residents, teachers and teacher advocates packed into the Von Humboldt Elementary School auditorium this week to weigh in on a long-stalled plan to turn the shuttered school into an apartment complex geared toward teachers.

At the chaotic two-hour-long meeting Monday night, the majority of residents who spoke during public comment lambasted the developer behind the project, East Coast-based RBH Group, and Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st).

They took turns slamming the project, saying it doesn’t address Humboldt Park’s gentrification-fueled displacement problem and that teachers won’t be able to afford the apartments. Some said they’d much rather see officials reopen the school, which closed in 2013 when the district closed a record 50 schools.

“We would like to see the school be back open,” local teacher Jhoanna Maldonado said to cheers.

“Whether there’s 10 kids, 100 kids or 2,000 kids in this neighborhood — every kid should deserve to go to their neighborhood school. If that’s not the case, it should be housing for families who have been displaced from our neighborhoods.”

Credit: Courtesy of RBH Group
A rendering of the school, looking south on Rockwell Street.

RBH Group is looking to repurpose the vacant school at 2620 W. Hirsch St. and carve out 102 apartments, down from the 116 previously proposed, as well as classrooms, community area, offices and retail.

Under the current proposal, roughly half of the 102 apartments would be reserved as affordable housing and marketed toward teachers, according to La Spata. The other half would be market-rate.

The detailed breakdown, provided by La Spata’s office Tuesday, is as follows:

29 one-bedrooms at market rate: no income limit
21 one-bedrooms at 100% AMI (area median income): $62,440 to $71,300 income for a household with 1-to-2 people (approximately)
11 one-bedrooms at 60% AMI: $37,440 to $42,780 income for a household with 1-to-2 people (approximately)
8 studios at market rate: no income limit
8 two-bedrooms at market rate: no income limit
7 two-bedrooms at 100% AMI: $71,300 to $89,100 income for a household with 2-to-4 people (approximately)
5 townhomes at market rate (“Phase 2”): for sale, no income limit/no purchase price limit
4 duplexes at market rate: no income limit
4 studios units at 100% AMI: $62,440 income
3 two-bedrooms at 50% AMI: $35,650 to $44,550 income for a household with 2-to-4 people (approximately)
3 two-bedrooms at 60% AMI: $42,780 to $53,460 income for a household with 2-to-4 people (approximately)
2 duplexes at 60% AMI: $48,120 to $62,040 income for a household to 3-to-6 people (approximately)
2 studios at 30% AMI: $18,750 income

The goal is to create a community where teachers can live, eat, shop and take classes. The project is modeled after an existing RBH Group development in downtown Newark, New Jersey, also called “Teachers Village,” which is made up of three charter schools, a daycare center, apartments and retail.

The Humboldt Park project has been in the works since 2016. It was first proposed under former 1st Ward alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno. The former alderman supported the project, but the development team had trouble securing the necessary financing.

La Spata in June said he wouldn’t support the project unless the development team included more affordable family-sized apartments, which he said are much-needed in the gentrifying neighborhood.

Ron Beit, CEO of RBH Group, told neighbors Monday evening his team has spent the last few years listening to resident feedback and incorporating that feedback into the proposal. The unit mix has been changed “several times,” according to Beit’s spokesman.

“We’re here to listen and we have been listening,” Beit said.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Von Humboldt Elementary School has sat empty since 2013. The district closed the school in what has become known as the largest mass school closure in the country’s modern history.

Matt Zolecki of Wight Architects, the firm tapped to design the project, led neighbors through a long presentation in which he explained the configuration of the proposed complex, but didn’t provide basic details like the total number of apartments and unit mix.

Zolecki was followed by Nicholas Zettel, La Spata’s policy director, who said his team looked at what Chicago Public Schools teachers typically earn and found that 222 teachers and 82 teaching support staffers in the 1st Ward can afford to live in the “Teachers Village” complex.

One of Zolecki’s slides showed the development team has agreed to add a handful more two- and three-bedroom apartments to the mix at the community’s and La Spata’s request. The larger apartments are meant to accommodate families.

Residents stayed mostly quiet during the presentation, but as soon as the meeting opened up to public comment, an hour’s worth of pent up confusion and rage spilled into the hot auditorium.

“These numbers that you see up here are not numbers that are going to be for our students, the families in our communities. We are losing people within our communities,” local teacher William Smiljanić Pérez said. “We demand a larger unit mix.”

Ana Garcia Lopez, a teacher who lives near the shuttered school, said she makes more money than your average CPS teacher and can afford to live in “Teachers Village,” but she said she’s in the minority.

“We need to be more realistic and bring the prices down for other teachers who don’t make as much,” Garcia Lopez said.

None of the residents who spoke used the microphone to laud the development team, though the public comment portion of the meeting was cut short because the development team’s presentation went long.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
(from left) Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Jessie Fuentes at Monday evening’s meeting.

But Jose Lopez, executive director for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and Jessie Fuentes of the Puerto Rican Agenda made their support of the project known.

“There’s a lot of emotions. We’re talking about schools, the lack of funding, and I get that because I’m an educator, but we’re taking it out on the wrong people,” Fuentes said, eliciting applause.

At the end of the meeting, La Spata acknowledged the public comment portion was cut short and promised residents he’d continue the meeting even if it meant he had to talk to residents outside.

The alderman ended up talking to residents in the auditorium vestibule as rain poured down on Humboldt Park.

After the meeting, nearby resident Megan Lewis, 52, told Block Club she left the meeting confused.

“It got caught in the weeds about whether this should be a school anymore. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to talk about the bigger picture, about what this place could be for the community as a whole,” Lewis said.

“I support the spirit of it, but when it gets down to the specifics, I’m not sure I understand who they’re marketing to and the breakdown of the units. It took a long time for them to finally say there’s 102 units.”

La Spata acknowledged the poor communication in a Facebook post late Monday.

“There’s a lot I can do to improve my communications and facilitation (including having someone else facilitate) but I’m grateful for the hundreds of people who brought their passion and patience to that hot auditorium. Honored to serve you,” the alderman wrote.

La Spata’s office on Tuesday afternoon said a final vote tally was not yet available. Residents are encouraged to give their feedback online.

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